These are the 12 most famous paintings by Jacques-Louis David who was a leading French Neoclassical painter in the 19th century. The art of David is often used as an example of art as a means of political propaganda. The chronological presentation of his paintings gives an insight into the socio-political background during the pre-revolutionary, revolutionary, and Napoleonic periods.
It is needless to say that he is a part of these turbulent times in Western civilization. From being a member of the Nation Convention and voting for the execution of King Louis VI, to becoming Napoleon’s court painter in 1804, David had a rebellious past and can be considered a crucial part of dynamic times of French history.
The Coronation of Napoleon (1806)
To further consolidate and establish his power, Napoleon abolished the Republic on the 2nd of December 1804 and crowned himself emperor, and the ceremony itself required the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral. Napoleon decided that the coronation ceremony should be led by Pope Pius VII. It was rather unpleasant for the Pope since Napoleon was completely controlling the entire ceremony, including the religious segments. After the coronation and Napoleon’s proclamation as emperor, it was taken care that the new court was not like the court of Louis XVI.
The Oath of Horatii
This is a painting David did while in Rome. This painting stresses the importance of masculine self-sacrifice for patriotism, as the custom of the clashed cities, in this case, Rome and Alba Longa, was to choose the best fighters to settle the conflict, instead of a collision of great armies. The Horatii were an ancient Roman family. Their sons were chosen to fight the sons of the Curiacia family from the city of Alba Longa. The tragedy was that one of the Curiacii sisters was married to one of the Horatii, and another sister of the Horatii was engaged to Curiacii. This duel was tragic, as only the oldest son of Horatii, Publius, survived. As he returned to Rome, his sister cursed him, and he draws his sword and kills her. Publius was then arrested for murder, but his father defends him. David shows the scene of the oath, which is purely his own idea since the oath is not mentioned in any written source.
The Death of Socrates (1787)
The Athenian philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BC after a conflict with the Athenian rulers after being charged with denying the deities and corrupting the Athenian youth. He accepted his fate, and David depicts Socrates as calm and strong. Surrounded by Crito, his students and his accompanies, after drinking the poison, he is still philosophizing. His wife is seen grieving alone outside the chamber while Plato is depicted as an old man seated at the end of the bed. This scene was reimagined by David’s liking, because Plato himself wasn’t present when Socrates drank the poison, and Plato states that there were 15 witnesses, while David painted 12, thus connecting him to Christ.
The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789)
Lucius Junius Brutus was the founder of the Roman Republic since he overthrew the last Roman king, consequently, he strictly followed the Roman code and condemned his sons to death because they supported the monarchy. David painted the Lictors or Roman officers, bringing the bodies of Brutus’s sons to his family home where their mother and sisters are waiting. The central figure, Brutus is placed in shadow and darkness, clutching the paper. But the mother and sisters are placed on the other end of the painting, in a space filled with bright colors and lighting. The eldest daughter faints in her mother’s arms, while the younger looks painfully at the corpses of her brothers. David’s painting invites the observer to analyze Brutus, was he a patriot, or a monster ready to sacrifice his family for the sake of the Roman Republic?
The Death of Marat (1793)
Jean-Paul Marat was a political theorist, journalist, and scientist. He was a defender of the lower classes, and he used his fierce tone and uncompromising stance toward the new regime of the revolution. This painting shows Marat lying dead in his bathtub after being murdered with a cleaver by a young Charlotte Corday. David personally knew Marat and was in his apartment on the day of the assassination while his body was still in the bathtub. This painting represents the climax of his involvement in the revolution, and this painting is one of the most brilliant political paintings of the West.
The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799)
This is another David painting inspired by antiquity. In order to ensure the growth of the population, the Romans, led by Romulus, attacked Sabine’s neighbors and kidnapped their women. Three years after the intervention, the Sabines, led by King Titus Tatius, attacked the Romans with the help of the Vestal priestess Tarpeia and avenged their daughters and wives. The Romans and Sabines fought an epic battle which was concluded when Sabine women convinced both sides to end the war. Although the war was extremely violent, David decided to oppose to violence and depict pacification and reconciliation.
Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1812)
This vertical canvas painting shows Napoleon in his uniform as a colonel of the Imperial Guard. Even though his costume shows formality, his pose opposes it. He is standing casually, with one hand in his pocket and his shoulders relaxed.
The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte (1821)
This realistic and detailed painting was commissioned by the girls’ mother, and today there are three versions of the painting known. It was painted in Brussels where David was in exile after the fall of Napoleon. Zénaïde and Charlotte were also exiled to Brussels, and the letter they read is by their father, the King of Spain, who is in the United States.
Mars Being Disarmed by Venus and the Three Graces (1824)
This was David’s last great work. He wrote “This is the last picture I want to paint, but I want to surpass myself in it. I will put the date of my seventy-five years on it and afterward I will never again pick up my brush.” Just one year after finishing up this painting, while he was leaving the theater, a carriage struck him, and shortly after, he passed away from the consequences.
Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife (1788)
Lavoisier was a famous physicist, chemist, and biologist, considered as one of the most important European scientists, and came from a wealthy family that collected taxes directly for the French crown. The so-called practice was condemned in the pre-revolutionary society. Marie-Anne, the wife of the famous scientist, was taught painting by David himself and she commissioned the portrait. David shows the couple in his office and directly into the eyes of the observer in the look of Marie-Anne. She is leaning towards Lavoisier, who is seated.
The Loves of Paris and Helen (1788)
This work was commissioned by king Charles X. The painting depicts Helen of Troy and Paris from Homer’s Iliad who is in the center of the painting. Behind them are the caryatides which were recreated from the Louvre and were made by the 16th-century renaissance sculptor.
Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass (1801)
Charles IV of Spain, King of Spain, impressed with the victories of a young general, ordered a painting of Napoleon. When David asked Napoleon to pose for him, Napoleon refused and said that the painting should represent the idea, and that physical resemblance isn’t important. That left David with no choice but to dress his student Gerard in the uniform worn by Napoleon himself during the battle of Meringue. Napoleon is depicted wearing a dark green uniform steering a reared-up horse and crossing the Alps.
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